Staying Safe at the Tablesaw

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This article is from Issue 42 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Prudent practices for ripping and crosscutting

By Paul Anthony

The tablesaw doesn’t enjoy a reputation as the safest tool in the shop. Truth is, it sends plenty of woodworkers to the emergency room every year. But don’t let that scare you away from one of the most useful machines in your arsenal. Staying off its casualty list is neither complicated nor expensive. It’s just a matter of understanding the potential dangers that lurk at the saw and taking the necessary precautions to guard against them.

In a nutshell, the two real threats are laceration and kickback. The safeguard against laceration involves keeping your hands from contacting the blade. This can be accomplished by using appropriate guards and by simply maintaining a safe distance from the blade. Kickback, which causes far more accidents, can be prevented by keeping your stock under control. Proper stock preparation, good feed technique, and simple jigs and fixtures will do the trick.

In this article, I’ll show you the most important steps for safe success when ripping and crosscutting at the saw. Make these moves part of your regular regimen, and you’ll never need to be nervous when you flip that saw switch.

Cardinal Safety Rules

If you read nothing else, read this. Some rules can be bent, others are made to be broken, but disobeying one of these may earn you a trip to the ER.

  • Do not wear loose clothing or jewelry at the saw, and tie back long hair.
  • Always wear eye and ear protection.
  • Never put your body or hands in front of the blade or behind it.
  • Don’t saw when drunk, drugged, tired or even distracted at the saw.
  • For general sawing, adjust the blade to project no more than about 3⁄8" above the workpiece.
  • When ripping, use a pushstick to keep your hands a safe distance from the blade.
  • Do not rip without using a riving knife, splitter, featherboard, or other device to keep the workpiece against the fence throughout the cut.
  • Never cut freehand without a fence, miter gauge, or other guide, and never grab the offcut while it’s being sawn.
  • If you suspect that a particular operation may be unsafe, it probably is. If you can’t provide for safety measures at the tablesaw, use a different tool.

Measure to the fence from a marked tooth, first at the front of the saw, and then at the rear.

Using a straightedge, align the splitter (or riving knife) to the right-hand sides of the blade teeth.

Prepare your saw

In order for your saw to perform safely, the blade and fence must be properly aligned. Tablesaw tune-up is a story unto itself, but you can do a basic setup quickly and easily. First, align your rip fence to the blade. To check the alignment, raise the blade to full height and measure over to the fence from a marked tooth rotated forward (Photo A). 

Next, rotate the same tooth to the rear of the saw and measure again; then adjust your fence to equalize the measurements. (Referencing from a single tooth removes any blade warp from the equation.) Some woodworkers angle the rear end of the fence away 1⁄32" or so for an extra margin of safety.

Next, align your splitter or riving knife to the blade. With the blade still at full height, place an accurate straightedge against the right-hand side of the teeth (not the plate). Adjust the splitter or knife to align perfectly to the straightedge (Photo B).

This ensures that stock is held to the fence when ripping and eliminates the chance of kickback once the board contacts the splitter or knife.

Make sure your blade guard is in place and operating smoothly. Yes, I know a guard can get in the way when cutting narrow or small pieces, so you’re going to remove it at times. Nonetheless, use it whenever you possibly can. If you’ve “lost” your original guard, various aftermarket models can be retrofitted to most saws (see the opening photo).

A zero-clearance throat plate can easily be outfitted with a shop-made splitter of wood or aluminum angle.

Riving Knives and Splitters

A riving knife or splitter is crucial for preventing kickback when ripping. Most new saws come equipped with a convenient riving knife, which rises, falls, and tilts with the blade and removes easily if necessary. Most older saws came equipped with a troublesome splitter/guard assembly that was often discarded by the user. If your saw is in the latter camp, get a splitter. A variety of aftermarket splitters are available for retrofitting to most saws (I use the Biesemeyer model). Alternatively, you can make your own, fitting it to a zero-clearance throat plate.

Rip the sole straight before shaping the pushstick. Complete the cut at the heel using a jigsaw or bandsaw.
When ripping, stand to the left of the blade with your legs splayed for good footing.

Prepare your stock

Trying to guide a crooked edge against the rip fence invites kickback. Similarly, struggling to hold a crooked edge against a miter gauge or crosscut sled fence can cause a workpiece to jump when it hits the blade. To prevent this, joint and plane stock straight and flat before bringing it to the saw. Also inspect your stock for solidity before sawing. Don’t cut through loose knots or deep cracks, which can cause parts of a board to suddenly break free mid-cut.

Safe ripping basics

Safe ripping requires a suitable pushstick, sure-footed balance, and a smooth, deliberate feed technique. For best control, use a “shoe-style” pushstick (Photo C).

Its long sole helps hold a workpiece against the table, while its heel pushes the work forward. I make my own pushsticks from 1⁄2"- and 1⁄4"-thick plywood, using the latter for ripping narrow stock. Make sure the sole is dead-straight for good contact with the workpiece. (Attaching a strip of 150-grit sandpaper helps for applying sideways pressure against the fence.) When sawing, keep the pushstick at the ready for easy retrieval.

Make sure to use an outfeed table or other support to prevent workpieces from tipping up at the trailing end and/or crashing to the floor as you complete the cut. If using a friend as a receiver, have him support the board palms-up only, never pulling on it.

To rip, stand to the left of the blade with your legs splayed roughly parallel to it and your torso facing the fence (Photo D).

Turn on the saw, and lay the board on the table against the fence with its leading edge a few inches from the blade. Make sure the leading edge is flat on the table to prevent the blade from slapping it downward.

With your pushstick at the ready and the board flat on the table, feed with steady, even force while maintaining downward and sideways pressure with your left hand. When the trailing end of the board is on the table, switch to the pushstick for feeding, while keeping your left hand a safe distance from the blade. 

With your left hand pressing the board against the fence and downward onto the table, put your right hand against the trailing end. (With a long board, grab the right-hand edge of the board instead, reaching as far back as you comfortably can.) Feed the board steadily forward into the spinning blade (Photo E). When the trailing end of the board is completely on the table, bring your pushstick into play while maintaining sideways pressure with your left hand (Photo F). As the cut nears completion, retract your left hand and continue feeding until the pushstick is past the splitter (Photo G).



Understanding Kickback

So what causes kickback? It’s really pretty simple: It’s the rising rear saw teeth grabbing the edge of the board and hurling it upward and backward at fierce speeds. When ripping, the feed force encounters diagonal resistance from the blade, causing the board to rotate toward the rear teeth, instigating the problem. The fix? Use a properly aligned splitter or riving knife to keep the stock against the fence and away from the rear teeth.

When setting up a featherboard, press it firmly against the stock in front of the blade, and lock or clamp it in place. A slot-mounted unit is easiest to set.

Featherboards

A featherboard can be used instead of your hand to hold stock against the fence. Its flexible fingers are set at about a 30° angle to allow easy feeding while impeding rearward motion. A featherboard is pretty good insurance against kickback but it’s no substitute for a properly aligned splitter or riving knife. That’s because a featherboard can’t be located aft of the blade where it would pinch against the kerf. A featherboard can be mounted in the table slots (Photo H) or clamped to the table (Photo I).

A miter gauge fence that reaches to the blade allows easy cutline setup with the end of the fence.

A crosscut sled handles long boards and panels that would teeter dangerously against a small miter gauge.

Safe crosscutting basics

Crosscutting isn’t as potentially dicey as ripping, but offcuts can still be kicked back at you and a workpiece can be twisted out of your hands if you aren’t careful. The best precautions you can take are to maintain firm control of the workpiece, keep your hands out of the path of the blade, and avoid pinching the offcut between the blade and a stop of any sort. As with ripping, it’s crucial that a piece to be crosscut is first dressed straight and flat. Finally, don’t allow offcuts to build up on the saw table. Vibration can cause them to wander into the spinning blade, hurling them at you. But don’t try to clear them away with the saw running. You don’t want to catch your hand, pushstick, or bench brush on a spinning blade.


Crosscutting Panels Using the Rip Fence

In general, it’s a bad idea to crosscut a panel that’s wider than it is long. A wide panel can accidentally tip into the blade, inviting kickback. If you must do it, make sure to use a splitter, and carefully feed both sections forward from their centers at a consistent feed rate while standing to the left of the blade.

Crosscutting with a miter gauge

Tablesaws come with a miter gauge for crosscutting, but most models are just a suggestion of what they ought to be. The unadorned gauge handles relatively small workpieces fine, but that’s about it. You can increase its effectiveness by attaching an auxiliary fence to increase the gauge’s bearing surface (Photo J.) Adhering 220-grit sandpaper to the fence face increases safety and accuracy by preventing workpieces from sliding during the cut. However, even with an auxiliary fence, you can’t expect a miter gauge to safely handle large boards. For that you need a crosscut sled.


Register the end of a workpiece against a standoff block clamped to the rip fence forward of the blade.
Holding the work firmly, make the cut. The untrapped offcut can now fall away safely.

Using a crosscut sled

The typical tablesaw is not equipped for crosscutting large boards or panels. However, it’s not hard to build a crosscut sled for the job (Photo K). A well designed and built sled carries both large and small workpieces past the blade with complete control that offers both safety and accuracy. (Looking for a sled plan? Refer to Issue #34 [April/May 2010], or go to woodcraftmagazine.com/onlineextras.)

Small pieces can be held safely against a miter gauge (above) or a crosscut sled (right) by “bridging over” from a piece of scrap of the same thickness.

Avoiding crosscut kickback

The two most common causes of crosscut kickback are crosscutting panels using the rip fence, and pinching the offcut between the blade and a stop when cutting multiples to length.

To be honest, the first is a procedure commonly performed by professionals because of its efficiency. It’s effective, as long as the fence-bearing edge is long enough to provide stability, but it must be done with care, as explained in the sidebar (page 42). Better yet, use a crosscut sled.

Cutting multiples to length using the rip fence as a stop pinches the offcut between the blade and rip fence, resulting in kickback almost every time. To prevent this, use a “standoff” stopblock clamped to the fence, as shown in Photos L and M. 

Clamp the standoff block to the fence far enough in front of the blade to allow the workpiece to clear it before it contacts the blade. With the work pressed against the block, position the fence to align the cut with the blade. You can then safely saw without kickback.

Crosscutting small pieces

Most of us have small pieces of precious wood that we sometimes need to cut to make pulls and accents. To keep your fingers out of harm’s way, you can create a hold-down by “bridging over” from a piece of scrap of similar thickness, as shown in Photos N and O.  

About Our Author

Paul Anthony, Woodcraft Magazine senior editor and author of Taunton’s Complete Illustrated Guide to Tablesaws, can still count to ten using his fingers.

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